When Blake Wheeler bailed on the Phoenix Coyotes for the chance to become an unrestricted free agent, it was a rather surprising move. It was a rule people knew about, but not one a first-round pick and highly-touted prospect had used the way Wheeler did.
Wheeler has carved out a pretty good career for himself in the NHL, so it's hard to say things didn't work out for him. Phoenix has turned itself into a perennial playoff team, despite budget constraints and all the drama surrounding the franchise's future in Arizona. So, yeah, it's worked out for the Coyotes, too.
When Wisconsin lost to Denver in the first round of the WCHA playoffs in March, conventional wisdom was that defenseman Justin Schultz would sign with the Anaheim Ducks, the team that drafted him in 2008. That didn't happen, and it immediately started to look like Schultz was taking advantage of the same rule Wheeler did.
Per the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement, a player who is drafted and then plays in junior for one season before going to college can exercise a rule in the agreement. That player has the right to withdraw from school after his junior year. After a 30-day window where the drafting team has exclusive negotiating rights, the player can become an unrestricted free agent, just like Wheeler did, and now how Schultz has done.
It's a rule that allows players who played junior hockey for a year before going to college to be treated the same as those who go straight to college. After four years have passed, a team has to make a decision ... if the player withdraws from school and forces the team to make that call.
Players who spend their four post-draft seasons in college have the same rights Schultz does. They can become free agents if they choose to not sign in the 30-day window.
It's a rule that not everyone understands (even after Wheeler signed with Boston, I didn't totally understand it), but it does make perfect sense if you think about it.
The only thing I don't like about it is entry-level players have more freedom than restricted free agents. I'm not sure I like the message that sends.
A restricted free agent who is extended a qualifying offer by his current team has virtually no freedom compared to what Schultz has now. That RFA can sign an offer sheet with a different team, but the current team has a right to match the offer and keep the player. In the case of Schultz, Anaheim has no right. The club offered Schultz the max, but obviously Schultz wants to play elsewhere.
Per the CBA, it's his right. That doesn't make it right.
It's something I'd like to see fixed in the upcoming negotiations, though I fully understand it isn't a priority for Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr. Entry-level players should not have more rights when it comes to "picking" their NHL team than experienced free agents do.
As for the future, I've tweeted this before, but I'd be willing to bet Schultz ends up with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Buddy Jake Gardiner was traded there, and it seems the Leafs' move of Luke Schenn could have been made to open a spot among their top four defensemen for Schultz to fill.
Can Schultz step in and be a top four defenseman in the NHL? Well, he's as good as I've seen in college hockey over my seven years calling games there. He has puck-moving, skating, and hockey sense that can translate to any level, including the NHL. There's no reason he won't be very good, but there's obviously some risk when you're talking about a guy who played in the BCHL for juniors and then played three years in college.
I have no problem with Schultz taking advantage of the opportunity presented to him by the CBA. None whatsoever. Ducks fans probably disagree, but that's the nature of the beast. Their anger should be directed at the system that allows this. Some will be mad at GM Bob Murray for not making a deal for Schultz's negotiating rights during the 30-day window. I'm not sure what good that would have done, since a deal with the Maple Leafs seems like a foregone conclusion, to the point that I've heard the "T" word (tampering) thrown around.
In the end, it's unfortunate that the Ducks will lose a potentially great defenseman, but it's hard to look down on Schultz for doing what he thinks is best for him.